LEGO Universe Delivers a Compelling Online ExperienceS

Working on a massively multiplayer online computer game seems akin to mining for gold.

Most studios working on these virtual living words of fun and story never strike it rich, some investing so much time and money that when their game fails, so does their studio, tragically, spectacularly.

But there's always World of Warcraft's successes beckoning new attempts. With 12 million people around the world paying a monthly fee to play, the nearly six year old Blizzard-created computer game is the motherlode of game development pay-offs.

The latest contender to Blizzard's throne hit last week backed by the popularity of a nearly 70-year-old toy and the design skills of a development studio with plenty of attempts under their belt.

LEGO Universe hopes to bring the ideals of the LEGO toy - build, create, share – into a virtual world that is safe for children, but fun for everyone. And so far, they seem to be off to a solid start.

When players log into the game they take on the role of a customized minifig, choosing a faction, adventuring through stories, fighting the bad guys. The difference with this game, though, is that its fantasy world is built entirely of virtual LEGO.

Developer NetDevil spent nearly five years working on and testing their game with Danish toy company LEGO. The studio brought in LEGO experts to build everything that ended up in their game out of real LEGO first. They have, they told me during a recent visit to their studio, one of the five largest collections of the toys in the world.

An entire corner of their cavernous studio of more than 200 developers is dedicated to a LEGO Library. The brick forest, as some of the developers call it, is made up of rows of shelving stacked with plastic bins. Attached to the front of each bin is a single LEGO piece showing what's inside.

The master designers at the studio occupy the front of the library, their creations stacked up on desks and displays around them. It's amazing what can be done with tiny plastic bricks given the time and skill. Complete replicas of the Star Trek space fleet, entire scenes from the movie Star Wars, animals big and small, boats, houses, creatures fill the space.

It's this creativity that NetDevil hopes players unleash in LEGO Universe.

My short time with the game over the weekend turned into a late night gaming session. There are a lot of things that NetDevil nails in their title.

Early on players are encouraged to adventure through the different planets found in the LEGO Universe, going on short missions to learn how to battle the enemies of LEGO and creativity. Players work to find the game's currency, new weapons, new items and collectible pieces of LEGO.

But early on in the game, players are also given their own space to create within. In this space players build their own creations with the bricks they collected just like they would with real LEGO pieces.

It's this ability to create something lasting in a virtual world that feels a bit different. Other games have tapped into this idea in the past, but the difference here is that you're using LEGO.

One day, the developers hope that everything you build in the virtual world will be buildable in the real one as well. There's even talk of allowing gamers to specifically order the pieces needed to create their custom designs.

The game also includes the ability to design your own games. By collecting "behavior bricks" players can essentially program their own LEGO video games. The system works a bit like LEGO's popular robotics construction toy, Mindstorms.

The behavior bricks can make your LEGO creations behave in certain ways and react to certain things. Players can then use this and their brick building skills to create games like Pac-Man, Space Invaders or something unique.

It's a creative platform in the guise of a game," said NetDevil's Ryan Seabury.

While the game is now live, the folks at NetDevil are still hard at work developing where it's headed.

The team already has a five year plan in place that includes major story developments and new additions to play, like the ability to fight other players in special areas.

Long burnt out on playing massively multiplayer online games, I was a bit surprised how much fun I was having checking out LEGO Universe. Its whimsical mix of LEGO elements, humor and collecting is a powerful combination.

More surprising, though, is that my 9-year-old son has just as much fun playing the game as I do.

Creating a game that is equally fun for children and adults could help NetDevil find some piece of World of Warcraft's immense, though elusive success.

Well Played is a weekly news and opinion column about the big stories of the week in the gaming industry and its bigger impact on things to come. Feel free to join in the discussion.